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Psalms Encourage Family Faith Formation

It’s easy to see why parents would want their kids to know Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and Psalm 103, “Praise the Lord, my soul.” But do children also need to hear Psalm 13, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” or Psalm 22, “I cry out by day, but you do not answer”? Robert J. “Bob” and Laura Keeley say yes.

It’s easy to see why parents would want their kids to know Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and Psalm 103, “Praise the Lord, my soul.” But do children also need to hear Psalm 13, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” or Psalm 22, “I cry out by day, but you do not answer”? Robert J. “Bob” and Laura Keeley say yes.

The Keeleys, who direct children’s ministries at Fourteenth Street Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, included all four of those psalms, plus seven more, in their free online devotional book, “Psalms for Families.” It’s designed to help parents, teens and kids interact with the Psalms’ beauty and depth.

“We included psalms of lament to make sure children get to experience that we can come to God with our sorrows,” Laura Keeley says. She and her husband have written articles, books, Christmas plays for children and curriculum. Bob Keeley is also an education professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

They tweaked “Psalms for Families” according to feedback from the dozen families who tested it with children and grandchildren. “One family who tested these for us had foster children, and they spent a lot of time talking about lament when that set of devotionals came up. They said that it was great to be able to work through those ideas with their children,” Laura says.

“Psalms for Families” is yet another result of the Keeleys’ experience in helping families and churches use the Psalms to encourage faith formation in children and youth. They’ve discovered that when all ages interact with the Psalms, they nurture a common language for life together with God. They’ve learned how to create access points into the Psalms for preschoolers on up.

Psalms for all ages

The Keeleys realize that the Psalms, with their abstract ideas rather than narratives, can be hard to grasp. Many have difficult language, metaphors or images. That’s why their first suggestion for intergenerational interaction with the Psalms is to slow down. Their online family devotionals focus on a single psalm for five or six days.

“We noticed that family faith formation activities tend to be children’s faith formation activities led by parents. We wanted to write devotionals that kids could understand—but ones that would still have enough depth to help teens and adults,” Bob says.

“Psalms for Families” follows a weekly pattern. On their first day with a psalm, families read it together and use a suggested prayer. Simple devotionals for the next four days include psalm readings and “Enter the Psalm” ideas for responding in personal or active ways. On the sixth day, families read the whole psalm again and talk about how their understanding of it has changed or deepened. Each devotional set includes a “More” section to give adults more context.

Families who tested earlier drafts of “Psalms for Families” noticed that discussions worked best when children in upper elementary grades “got” the ideas. Older siblings still learned things, and younger siblings stayed engaged. “We wrote our final draft so that anyone from about third grade up could understand everything. Families with only high schoolers said their teens thought the devotionals ‘seemed a little young’—but they still had great discussions. That’s what we hoped for. We tried to put deep theological ideas in child-accessible language,” Bob says.

Nurture a common language

When all ages explore psalms together, they learn to trust that God will listen to whatever emotions they express. The Psalms offer language and patterns for how to speak with and respond to God. Absorbing these words and patterns helps all ages live faithfully and worship deeply.

“We want children to engage with the Psalms, be aware that God hears them, and learn language they can use when they feel like singing a praise chorus or when their world has been shattered. The Psalms demonstrate how to tell God we’re sorry or ask God for help,” Laura says.

Their online devotionals help families see that when psalmists bring their questions and imperfections to God, they start remembering who God is and what God has done and promised to do. Psalmists’ emotions shift when they focus on God. “It is our hope that kids and teens, when they are lamenting times in their lives, will remember Psalm 13 and make that turn in thoughts to say to God ‘but I will trust in your unfailing love,’” Laura says.

As families spend time with psalms, kids start noticing familiar lines in worship. “Give thanks to the Lord.” “His love endures forever.” “I will sing and make music.” “I confess.” “You forgave.”  

The Keeleys led a year-long project at their church that used the Psalms to teach Vertical Habits, simple phrases that shape how we live out our faith. Just as a child learns to enjoy stories and say, “I’m listening,” Psalm 119 models how to delight in God’s Word. Worshipers practice that listening habit during the prayer for illumination before God’s Word is read and preached. Psalm 98 is a psalmist’s “I love you” to God. Worshipers practice that habit by praising God, often through music, dance or visual arts.

Create access points

The14th Street CRC Vertical Habits project offered multiple ways for all ages to get into the Psalms.

One key way is paying attention to developmental stages. The Keeleys note that children from ages three to five enjoy repetition. They don’t understand metaphors. They’re learning to say thank you. So in Psalm 107, which has 43 verses, it’s enough for very young children to know that this psalm reminds us to say ‘thank you’ to God. They can hear, say and memorize, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever” (Psalm 107:1). They can draw pictures of people they’re thankful for and thank God in prayer for those people.

Ages 10 to 14 are often able to think about how others experience life. Adults can help them see that whenever the people in Psalm 107 were hungry, thirsty or in chains, they cried out to God. God responded, and they gave thanks. Youth can color-code the psalm’s repeated pattern of ‘trouble-God’s response-our thanks.’ They can talk about how God acts in our daily lives and how we thank him.

The 14th Street congregation also used music, drama and visual art to enter the Psalms. At church and at home, they combined singing a psalm with reading it or reading the same psalm, verse by verse, from two translations. They studied the structure of specific psalms to write their own.

The Keeleys hope that however families explore rich psalm texts—through online devotionals, the Vertical Habits or other ways—they’ll internalize enough to improvise on psalms in daily life.

When their youngest daughter was on tour with the Calvin College Gospel Choir, her job was making sure everyone got on the bus. “She assigned every choir member a phrase from Psalm 24. She’d get on the bus and say, ‘The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.’ The next student would say, ‘The world and all who live in it’ and so on. They would recite the entire Psalm each time they got on the bus. And they knew if anyone was missing, because they knew the psalm and who said what line. Psalm 24 became an important part of that choir tour, and they ended up reciting it in their concerts,” Laura says.

Featured Links

Learn More

Start using “Psalms for Families: Devotions for All Ages.” Explore the best resources on children and worship, psalms in worship, and Vertical Habits: worship and our faith vocabulary.

Learn more about psalms-based Vertical Habits projects at 14th Street Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, and other churches.

Register for the Keeleys’ workshops at the 2014 Calvin Symposium on Worship. Listen to some of their past worship symposium presentations:

Buy their books:

Start A Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, worship, or church education meeting. These questions will help people think about why and how to include the Psalms in worship and family life.

  • Christians who can’t reliably identify sheep from goats find comfort in saying, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Most people who’ve seen the musical Godspell can bop along with “O bless the Lord, my soul,” a song based on Psalm 103. Which less-familiar psalms mean a lot to you?
  • What verses, phrases or images from the Psalms appear most often in your church worship? Where in the order of service do you hear, read, recite or sing from the Psalms?
  • What first steps could you take at home or church so that the Psalms more strongly influence how you live out your Christian faith?